"Lay Down Your Burdens" opens with a teaser so marvelously done, conveying such a sense of epic sweep and ominous foreboding that one wonders how the creators do it. In the spirit of the BSG crosscutting teaser (see also "Kobol's Last Gleaming, Part 1" and "Home, Part 2"), the director, editor, and composer all seem to channel the script as if their lives depended on it. In this sequence, amid much crosscutting between characters and events, Sharon notes that "something dark is coming," and then Chief Tyrol awakens from a nightmare and savagely beats Cally. At that moment, I was convinced that Tyrol was a Cylon, purely by the way this sequence was shot and emotionally configured.
Now, I'll have you know that I've utterly resisted any notion that any of the main characters are Cylons unknown to us. The way I see it, it's simply not necessary. But in the opening teaser here, it's an idea and feeling that is generated through the pure technique of filmmaking, and it shows the makers at the tops of their game. It's a tour de force.
A pity, then, that the episode can't live up to the feelings of pure dread in that teaser. Perhaps nothing could. While this is a good episode, it's also like a lot of episodes that come billed as "part 1 of 2": It suffers from a common syndrome known as All Setup, No Payoff. The episode ends as one of those annoying cliffhangers where explosions are going off everywhere and the characters are scrambling for survival. Frankly, as a cliffhanger, it's a snoozer because it's so utterly expected and arises from routine jeopardy instead of emotional truth. Fortunately for "Burdens," that's not really the point of the episode. Before the ending, this episode is mostly more proof that the series highly values its characters.
The plot is about Kara leading a risky mission involving a small army of Raptors making a complicated series of FTL jumps all the way back to Caprica to rescue the survivors of Anders' resistance group. She promised him she would, and now she's going to deliver. The episode wisely depicts the journey back to Caprica as a difficult one that required several technical hurdles in order to plan and will take a lot of heart in order to successfully implement. It requires a piece of bio-technology from the captured Cylon Heavy Raider to be tied into the lead Raptor's navigation system, and it requires Sharon to interface with that Cylon technology in order to plot the course. All of that is fine by me: If you're going to do a story about a trip back to Caprica, then it can't be a walk in the park and must require some risk and loss. (To illustrate that point, a Raptor crew is lost when they jump inside a mountain in a low approach to Caprica.)
Anyway, that's the plot. As I said, this is a story mindful about its characters. For example, we have Sharon, who has essentially gone into a depressed shutdown in the wake of what she believes to be her newborn daughter Hera's death in "Downloaded." The early scenes show her sullen and closed off, and if it isn't bad enough that her daughter is dead, everyone still gives her accusing stares even as she becomes the most crucial cog in the rescue mission. The fact that Kara speaks up in Sharon's defense is worth noting, and Helo does his best to be supportive, but it doesn't change the fact that Sharon is still a Cylon and, in the eyes of most, a potential danger to be feared and hated.
We also have Baltar, who is almost as distraught as Sharon over Hera's death, because of that odd notion Six planted in his head that she and Baltar are as much Hera's parents as Sharon and Helo. One could call this sort of displaced empathy a sickness, but then there's a lot about Baltar one could call a sickness. Baltar has other problems: The election campaign is in the home stretch, and he's fallen far enough behind Roslin that it looks like there's little chance of him catching up. Zarek, who functions as Baltar's Machiavellian puppet master, looks for anything that might give Baltar a new edge.
That new edge comes in the form of a planet discovered by pure chance. A Raptor from Kara's rescue mission gets separated from the group and in the process happens upon a habitable world. They report back to Galactica, and it quickly becomes a possibility that this world could be considered for permanent settlement. If the plot point feels like dejà vu of "Kobol's Last Gleaming," the difference here is that the planet is obscured in such a way that the Cylons might never find it. Zarek, seeing an opportunity, immediately seizes upon it as a political issue that could set Baltar apart from Roslin and turn the election in his favor.
Roslin is committed to the continued search for Earth. She is not convinced that the planet would offer true safety from the Cylons. And geological surveys have shown that it is a cold, harsh world where life would be possible, yes, but far from easy. But Zarek has canny instincts about what people want to hear, and their tendency to vote their hopes over the cold, harsh truth. The idea of open space and real skies speaks volumes to people who have been cooped up in metal boxes for months with no end in sight. He pushes Baltar in this direction, and when Six gives him a nudge as well, he goes for it.
Is it a cynical move for Baltar to prey on people's hopes as a political tool? I suppose that has to do with whom you ask. Roslin would certainly say that Baltar is taking an issue and exploiting it for political gain, without considering the truth of what the fleet would face if they actually settled on this planet. In a presidential debate, Baltar answers this claim by turning around and accusing Roslin of exploiting people's fear of the unknown. I suppose it's of little consequence that fear of the unknown is what keeps the fleet from being destroyed by the Cylons every week, but tell that to the civilians who are living in metal boxes with presumably far fewer amenities than the Galactica. It's proof that there's only so much room in politics for the brutal truth, and that spin and hope are what really drive the engine.
The other major character thread here is Tyrol's. Is he a Cylon? No, but he's afraid that he might be. He has a recurring suicide nightmare where he throws himself over the second level of the flight deck. When he beat Cally, he was in the middle of one of these nightmares. His fear arises in part from the fact that he was in love with a Cylon who didn't herself know she was a Cylon. He thinks he might be capable of the same cursed fate as Sharon. And now he also fears that he's going to be alone because he can't face his shipmates after having attacked one of them.
Having a religious background, Tyrol is more comfortable with religious counsel than, say, a psychiatrist. He has a terrifically written conversation with Brother Cavil (Dean Stockwell) in which Cavil — never a coddler — tells Tyrol point-blank what's wrong: "The problem is: You're screwed up, heart and mind. You." There's something about Cavil's directness that's refreshing, and I liked his take on personal responsibility (including, don't use prayer as a crutch, because the Gods intended their children to figure things out for themselves). The Tyrol/Cavil scenes comprise the psychological and emotional heart of the story.
It's perhaps a disappointment, then, that the episode ends with a complete lack of useful feeling and instead feels mechanically aborted in the most jarring sense of the All Setup, No Payoff "part 1 of 2" cliffhanger syndrome. Kara's mission reaches Caprica, they find Anders and the survivors (many of which, in an extreme and unnecessary coincidence, had been killed in a Cylon attack just that morning), and then the Cylon bombing suddenly starts and the screen goes to black.
Simply put, this doesn't feel worthy of what came before. I understand that it's the middle of a bigger story, but previous "part ones" have been more satisfying than this, usually with characters making crucial decisions just before the episodes end. For example: "Kobol's Last Gleaming, Part 1" where Starbuck decides to jump back to Caprica, or "Home, Part 1" where Adama decides to put the fleet back together, or even "Resurrection Ship, Part 1," where Adama assigns Starbuck to kill Cain. These are moments that felt satisfying as episode endings that showed characters in control of the story. Here, as the bombs started falling, I felt that the episode had simply stopped and not ended. Sort of like this review right now.